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Chinese Translations Are Tricky to Get Rigth

Too often translation agencies will send their English to Chinese translation projects to China because the lure of very cheap prices is difficult to resist.  Project managers see potential huge profits for their departments and hefty year-end bonuses for themselves.

Unfortunately, however, the results coming out of China are often flawed and this not because Chinese translators in China don’t know how to write Chinese or that they are incompetent or stupid or sloppy;  quite the contrary in most cases.   The main reason they cannot produce very good translations, especially coming from the American market, is that they mostly do not understand our English very well and more specifically they don’t understand American English’s idiosyncratic idiomatic expressions and business jargon.

I don’t say this lightly.

Take for example just a few of the hundreds of phrases found in the English language which when translated literally can make a Chinese text sound absolutely daft.


  • At the drop of a hat

  • Back to the drawing board 

  • Could not get to first base

  • He threw me a curve

  • Start at square one

  • Barking up the wrong tree

These are but a handful of the idiomatic expressions which flummox translators in China who have not had extensive exposure in an English speaking country, and again, most specifically US (American) English.

Even more problematic is English/American business jargon which is used extensively in annual reports, minutes and marketing material may include phrases such as the following:

  • There is no silver bullet solution

  • Big bang for the buck

  • Bring to the table

  • Bells and whistles 

  • Circle back 

  • Low hanging fruit

Again, if these phrases were literally translated into Chinese, the results will confuse and dismay the reader interrupting whatever message the original text was trying to convey.

As an antidote and to make it is more likely that a text will be translated with the intent of the original, it is probably better to use translators who live in the client country who have had exposure to these verbal landmines.  

Of course not all translators working in China are equally ignorant in this regard.  But certainly the least experienced translators working under the pressure of tight deadlines and tighter budgets tend to sweep these difficulties under the rug with the hope that they won’t be noticed.


There are few people in the United States who have not had the experience of reading instructions after opening a package of a new electronic product, household appliance or a child’s toy only to find meaningless text translated by a non native. 

And then there are the attempts the local casual translators trying to help their fellow countryman. You could not make these up:


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